Underdog Entrepreneurs: Beating the Odds
Drew Starbird, Ph. D., MBA '84
Much of the research on entrepreneurs and entrepreneurship focuses on the personal characteristics and experiences that motivate one to start and run a business. Inevitably, this research centers on positive characteristics and experiences: a good education, a supportive family, a favorable socio-cultural environment. Good things that lead to good outcomes.
In an intriguing new study, two academics from Canada propose the “challenge-based” model for entrepreneurship. Challenge-based entrepreneurs are motivated by difficult or traumatic experiences that are the result of negative economic, socio-cultural, physical, cognitive, or emotional conditions. The research is driven by the observation that entrepreneurs are more common in populations of immigrants, combat veterans, and the physically disabled than in the general population. Bad things that lead to good outcomes. They call them “underdog” entrepreneurs.
How do underdogs become underdog entrepreneurs? The key to turning bad things into good outcomes is a positive adaptive response. Individuals who face alienation, uncertainty, incapacity, and lack of opportunity must adapt if they are to survive, let alone be successful. They must work harder, take more chances, seek more help from others, and do things differently than their more fortunate friends. The authors identify several skills that are common among underdog entrepreneurs:
- Work discipline. Underdog entrepreneurs don’t start on third base. They have to work harder than everyone else just to get a chance at bat.
- Persistence. Persistence in the face of the personal challenges facing underdogs is truly inspiring. They don’t give up.
- Risk tolerance. Financial risk is minor in the face of the personal risks that underdog entrepreneurs must take on in order to start and run a business. They have an uncommon ability to overcome the fear of failure.
- Social networking skills. Underdogs often need help with tasks that the rest of us take for granted. The ability to seek assistance, take advice, and lead a team is critical.
- Creative problem solving. Successfully navigating the world with the disadvantages of underdogs requires a blend of innovation and creativity.
One of the dangers of living in Silicon Valley is forgetting to provide support to underdog entrepreneurs. We have all kinds of opportunities for the well-educated, well-connected, and well-endowed. Through universities, seed accelerators, and incubators, generous quantities of money and training tend to flow to “spotlight” entrepreneurs. No one can question the success of this model in creating wealth and jobs.
My work with Santa Clara’s MOBI and CAPE puts me in contact with quite a few underdog entrepreneurs. One that stands out is my friend Ashaki Hunter, who graduated from CAPE in February 2017 and won 3rd place in our pitch competition. Ashaki lost the use of her legs in a drive-by shooting when she was just 19 years old. While recovering, she discovered that she was not able to put on shoes because her toes curled—causing conditions similar to hammer toe. To solve this problem, she invented a sheath that fits over her foot and allows her to put on shoes in a fraction of the time. Without any experience in business, she excelled in the CAPE program and will soon launch her company, Abilities in Motion. She has gathered an impressive team of advisors, which includes business people, lawyers, and academics. Every one of them is committed to Ashaki and her success.
When underdogs are successful, they start businesses that create jobs and economic prosperity for themselves and others. Underdog entrepreneurs deliver on less traditional measures of success as well. They show us that we live in a world where justice and hope are alive and well.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Drew Starbird is the director of the My Own Business Institute (MOBI) at Santa Clara University, and professor of operations management and information systems (OMIS).
In 2015, he completed a six-year term as the dean of SCU’s Leavey School of Business. As director of MOBI, Dr. Starbird is responsible for the University’s most aggressive and far-reaching online education initiative to date. MOBI’s mission is to start businesses that create jobs around the world.
Starbird joined the SCU faculty in 1987, teaching operations management, statistics, and complex decision-making in the University’s undergraduate, graduate and executive education programs, and receiving numerous awards for his teaching and for his scholarship. His research interests include quality control and management, supply chain management, food safety, and policy relating to nutritional security.
Professor Starbird holds a B.S. from the University of California, Davis, an MBA from Santa Clara University, and his Ph.D. from Cornell University.